Theology in 3D

Leading with the Imagination

Greg Stiekes | August 17, 2018
New Testament

In his classic little volume, Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders says that a godly leader must have insight when it comes to the world, what is happening, and what it means. He refers to this quality as “vision.”

I like to use the word “imagination.”

I’m not referring to the world of make-believe, though we commonly think of what is imagined as the opposite of what is real. For instance, we think of the fact that children use their imaginations when they play. When our children were much younger I came into the living room to find three of them dressed in spy gear, each perched upon a sofa cushion they had placed on the floor. Only, they were no longer our children. They were CIA agents who had been dropped by helicopter onto icebergs in the Arctic Ocean. My wife and I were not surprised, since those three are always weaving some elaborate alternative universe. Once they were the daughters of Aragorn and a son of Legolas in Middle Earth, hunting down orcs left over from the battle with Sauron. Another time they spent an entire week, off and on, sneaking through the woods in back of our home, defending their fort with swords and javelins from the three evil giants sent by the goddess Gaea. Our children were exercising their imaginations. And such exercise is good and healthy for children, as long as their “make-believe” is moral and as long as they maintain the ability to separate their play world from the real one.

But the word imagination does not necessarily refer to that which is non-real. Your imagination, properly defined, includes your mental image of something that you cannot perceive with your physical senses. It is your ability to “see” the unseen, to look with your “mind’s eye” upon that which does not appear in the physical universe. If you can “see” the front of the home you grew up in, or if you can remember unwrapping a favorite Christmas present, you are exercising your imagination. The childhood home and the experience of unwrapping a Christmas present are real, but they are removed in time and space, accessible only through the imagination.

In fact, have you ever considered that the most important truths a child of God professes to believe are accessible only through the imagination? Heaven is real. Hell is equally real. The indwelling Holy Spirit is real. The glorious, resurrected Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, is real. Yet these are all beyond our ability to experience with the physical senses because they exist in the spiritual realm. They are removed from us in space. They are truly present, but they are not yet observed. We can “see” them only through the imagination.

Likewise, there are numerous real experiences that believers in Christ have been promised by God which are still in the future. For example, Revelation chapters 21 and 22 describe a glorious new heaven and earth, where God’s people will dwell with him and with the Lord forever. In these chapters, the apostle John is describing a future reality, but it is a reality that can only be imagined because these things have not yet come. They are removed from us in time. In fact, in his first epistle, John affirms that “what we will be” when the Lord returns “has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). These things are truly promised, but they are not yet obtained. Again, we can “see” them only through the imagination.

Imagination, therefore, is part of faith.

A true leader has the quality of imagination. A leader offers real guidance to others because he or she is able to perceive something that is not immediately accessible in the physical world, to “see” the unseen, to envision possibilities, to draw inferences, and to do all of these things in a way that others commonly do not. To put it another way, you become a leader for others when they recognize that you possess important knowledge or insight that they have not yet discovered or learned.

There is a wonderful example of this principle in the biblical story of Joseph in Genesis 41. As a young man, Joseph was sought out and made a leader because he could “see” that certain realities would occur in the future if certain decisions were made in the present. Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat and seven skinny cows, and the seven full and seven empty ears of corn, to mean that Egypt would enjoy seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. So Joseph advised the Pharaoh to place a leader over Egypt—“a discerning and wise man” (Gen 41:33)—who would administrate a plan of action. Joseph reasoned that if Pharaoh taxed the people one-fifth of their produce during the seven years of plenty, he would have enough grain in store to save the people from starvation during the seven years of famine. When the Pharaoh heard Joseph’s sensible interpretation of his dream, and recognized that he had a vision for the future, the Pharaoh told Joseph, “You are that leader!” He said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command” (Gen 41:39–40).

Pharaoh recognized that Joseph’s God had given him vision for the future—and this is highly significant. As we read the entire story of Joseph, we come to realize that God was purposely moving Joseph into a position of leadership in Egypt, so that Joseph might be able to save the rest of his family from starvation during the famine. By preserving Joseph and his brothers and all of their wives and children through Joseph himself, God was continuing to keep his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would make of their offspring a great nation. How did God make Joseph an important leader in the mighty empire of ancient Egypt? Why did Joseph, this obscure young man, who had come to Egypt as a slave, had languished in an Egyptian prison for several years, find himself thrust upon the world stage in the throne room of a mighty ruler? Had God endowed him with unusual strength, like Samson? Or did God make him tall and handsome, like Saul? Did God give him cunning in battle, like David? Did God give Joseph an abundance of riches, like Solomon? No. In fact, from all external appearances, Joseph would be the least likely candidate standing in the Egyptian throne room to rise to special prominence as a leader, being nothing more than a young foreigner from a small nomadic family of shepherds.

God brought Joseph into leadership simply by giving him ideas in his imagination that were not common to the others in the royal court. It was his imagination that led him to have the discernment and insight and vision to save not only his own family, but also all of Egypt. Furthermore, Joseph continued to demonstrate a remarkable imagination of what God was doing through him long after his family had been brought to safety in Egypt and were living in the area of Goshen.

When Jacob, their father died Joseph’s brothers were afraid that Joseph would now take revenge on them for selling him into slavery years ago. But Joseph rebuked his brothers for imagining such a thing, and said to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). In all that had happened, Joseph could “see” what God had been doing all along, even though his brothers still doubted. This is the reason Joseph was an able leader. He effectively exercised his imagination.


2 responses to “Leading with the Imagination”

  1. I like the idea of changing up our terminology sometimes, so we don’t get stuck in the rut of spiritualized language whose down-to-earth meaning we’ve lost sight of. But I think we also need to guard against language that can be misconstrued if not adequately defined and qualified biblically. So when you conclude, “This is why Joseph was an effective leader. He effectively exercised his imagination,” I think, “Hm. I’d’ve said he exercised his faith in God’s words (including all the way back to the God-given dreams of his youth).” Granted, “imagination is a part of faith.” But may they be used interchangeably? For instance, would “imagine” be a suitable translation of the Greek or Hebrew words for “believe”? It seems the only reason Joseph saw (and correctly interpreted) what God was doing was because his “imagination” was expressly rooted in and dependent on God’s revelation.

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